In the 1940s Alabama children learned that the KKK sometimes resorted to “night riding, intimidation, and whippings.” But there was no mention of those activities in the 1961 version of a popular Alabama history book. Instead, the book reassures us, many Negroes actually supported the political goals of KKK leaders.
This is the much-delayed part 3 of the series we began in February 2011. The first two installments also focused on how Alabama history has been taught and how the story changed between the overall optimism of the 1941 textbook (Alabama, Past and Future) and more defiant tone of Alabama History for Schools.
- Part 1: Slavery as Social Security – Don’t you wonder where some of the TEA Party “patriots” and holdover States Rights’ Dixiecrats get some of their unusual ideas about both the Constitution and the causes of the Civil War? Wonder no more. A lot of your fellow citizens (aged 50+) learned it in their Alabama History books.
- Part 2: Why Slavery Wasn’t So Bad – The 1961 textbook, Alabama History for Schools depicts slavery in Alabama as a system that really wasn’t so bad – at least for the most part because cruel laws regarding education, property ownership, etc. were on the books, but not always enforced.
I had planned to discuss the causes of the Civil War in this installment, but just couldn’t resist touching on the KKK and the “Knights of the White Camellia.”
Both movements, the books explain, came about as part of widespread disgust with the corruption and excesses of Reconstruction – and the changing relationship between the races.
From page 125 of “Alabama, Past & Future:”
At first under General John Pope, and later under General Meade, the radicals sent agents into Alabama to make Alabama safe for the Republican party. Although the Negroes generally had been loyal to their masters during the war, these Republican agents, some of them working for the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency of the War Department, and some of them working for the Loyal League, both really radical propaganda agencies, made fantastic promises to the Negroes and tried to stir up bad feelings toward the whites.
Because, of course, that whole slavery thing was just all in good fun, right? No need to hold a grudge or anything, y’all.
Have no fear, kids! In a three-step process, Southerners “regained control of their own government.” From page 126:
First, the carpetbaggers and the scalawags ang the Negroes began to fall out with each other, quarreling over the spoils. […] Second, the people in the north began to tire of hearing about the “the Southern question,” meaning “outrage stories from the South.” Third, the most important reason for the restoration of white control was known as the White Man’s Movement. The most spectacular phase of this, […] was the Ku Klux movement.
Yes, you read that right. The Ku Klux “movement” was “spectacular.”
Learn why on the flip….
The 1941 text describes the organizations and is clear about their methods and how the community perceived their power. From page 126:
The Ku Klux movement included a number of secret organizations of which the Ku Klux was the best known, and of which the Knights of White Camellia were the most numerous. […] In general, the Ku Klux was the organization of north Alabama and Tennessee, and the Knights of the White Camellia was the organization of south Alabama and of Louisiana. In any case, the purpose of all these organizations was much the same. Night riding, intimidation, and whippings were sometimes resorted to, but the very names of the organizations sufficient to improve the behavior of many wrongdoers.
um… if these shadowy groups were running around intimidating and whipping citizens, exactly whose behavior needed “improving?”
The Ku Klux movement eventually disbanded for several reasons. First, there grew up the false klans, groups of men who used the robes of these organizations to rob and to revenge personal spites.
Nice to know the KKK was so assiduous in guarding their good name and reputation, isn’t it?
Second, the spectacular methods of the Ku Klux furnished ammunition for propaganda for the radicals to use to convince the voters in the North that they should send soldiers into the South.
There’s that word again: spectacular.
Third, more effective means of restoring white rule were found in the later work of the White Man’s Movement. These were unspectacular but effective methods of political cooperation…
Their “unspectacular” crowning achievement? The 1901 Alabama Constitution that plagues us even today.
Ok. Now let’s fast forward (assuming that’s even possible in Alabama) to 1961, a scant 20 years later. Somehow, a textbook written during Alabama’s days of infamy as ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement manages to gloss over the role of the KKK and other domestic terrorist organizations.
While the 1941 text spent several of its 400 pages discussing the “spectacular” efforts of the Klan, Alabama History for Schools totally disses the role of the night riders. They get just a few paragraphs. From page 344:
There were also many smaller organizations which had no formal connections with either the Ku Klux or the Knights, but the purposes of all were similar.
And those were? I guess with only 644 pages in the book, there just wasn’t room to describe them.
The Ku Klux movement should not be confused with the organization after World War I which borrowed its name and its methods for different purposes.
What were those methods again? oops… no space available!
The Ku Klux of Reconstruction days was not anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, or anti-foreign. It was anti-Radical.
The most important reason for the ending of the Ku Klux movement was that a better method of combating Radicals was discovered in the one-party system. Men, who before the war had been Whigs, Democrats, Know Nothings, Secessionists, and Anti-Secessionists all banded together as Conservative Democrats. Many Negroes supported them.
Define “many,” please. Yikes… there’s that space problem again… And hey! Looks like membership in the early Klan was open to Catholics, Jews, and foreigners. Wonder how many joined?
Notice that the 1961 text (both books were written by the same author, Charles Grayson Summersell), deleted any sort of description of the “methods” of the KKK and how “spectacular” they were.
Rewriting history…. one of the world’s oldest sports.
In Part 4 – which I promise won’t take a year to write – we’ll find out more about the state got saddled with our 1901 Constitution. Here’s a hint: according to the “history books,” it’s all the “Negroes” fault….
Oh, and hats off to Mark Kelly at Weld for Birmingham. Quite independently of our LIA series, he found an old Alabama history book and was as horrified as I was.
..I was struck by the thought of how many of Alabama’s white children of that era had their minds warped by a system that was supposed to be fulfilling the higher mission of education — that is, inculcating a notion of the broadness and fullness of the world and providing students with the intellectual grounding to function as productive members of the human enterprise. Instead, we got a generation of white kids who were urged to think about how neat it would have been to grow up the scion of a slave owner.
Yep. And we’re still fighting that battle today.